Michael and Lesley Tierra's Blogs
Herbal, health and inspired life ramblings
I don’t know what it is about the holidays and me, but when this time of year comes around I think about spices. It’s probably because of the season – winter, colder weather, Kidney time – and spicing up meals enhances all three of these. So once again I give you something about spices, although this time with a different twist -- I’ve found a perfect book not only for your kitchen, but as a lovely gift option as well.
Titled, Healing Spice: How to Use 50 Everyday and Exotic Spices to Boost Health and Beat Diseases, this fabulous book by Bharat B. Aggarwai with Debora Yost (Sterling, 2011) does exactly what it says: presents 50 spices along with their health uses, science, how to buy and use them, and my favorite part – recipes!
I was so inspired by this book that I completely restocked our spice cabinet, throwing out a lot of old stuff, cleaning up the mess and bringing in just those spices we wanted and would use. Now when I open the spice cabinet I can easily grab the ones I want. It has become a delight to use them rather than a burden to find them. As well, this book inspired me to create my own spice blends (another great gift idea, by the way).
How often do we think of spices as medicine? How many people know that our “lowly” kitchen spices are some of our most potent healing herbs? According to Aggarwai, “(W)orldwide scientific research has linked spices to the prevention and treatment of more than 150 health problems, including heart disease, cancer, type 2 diabetes and Alzheimer’s.”
Many people know that ginger aids digestion and treats motion sickness, and turmeric is good for pain and arthritis. But how many know that caraway is a folk remedy to prevent and control blood sugar problems and that its daily intake for two weeks normalized blood sugar in rats? How many cooks know that a compound in star anise is used as the “starter ingredient” for Tamiflu, the most commonly prescribed drug for flu? How many realize that a vanillin-derived drug significantly reduced the percentage of sickle cells in rats, becoming a potential new agent for those with sickle cell anemia?
Do you cook with fennel, fenugreek, asafetida, juniper berry, ajowan or tamarind? All of these highly flavorful herbs also have tremendous health benefits. Many of these spices aid digestion, improving appetite and eliminating gas and bloating. Of course just a dash of spice won’t heal your arthritis, but continued use of these spices does have beneficial effects on health and prevents disease.
So go ahead – spice up your life this holiday and help others to do so, too! Here’s a spice recipe I love that you may enjoy, too. I made this so often recently that I decided to combine all the spices in one large batch for easy use in the future. However, if you choose to do so, keep the seeds separate from the powders; they brown at different rates.
- 1-2 Tbsp ghee or coconut oil or sesame oil
- ½ tsp fennel seeds
- ½ tsp fenugreek seeds
- ½ tsp ground cinnamon
- ½ tsp ground clove
- ½ tsp ground cardamom
- ½ tsp ground coriander
- ½ tsp ground cumin
- ½ tsp ground turmeric
- ½ tsp ground ginger
- 1 onion thinly sliced
- 2 cloves garlic, minced
- ½ tsp salt
- 1 cup plain Greek yogurt
- ½ tsp red pepper flakes (optional)
- 2 Tblsp chopped fresh parsley, for garnish
1) Heat ghee or oil in a large pan and add fennel and fenugreek seeds. After heating for a few seconds, add the remaining spices. Cook for two minutes over medium-low heat, stirring, until browned.
2) Mix in onion and garlic and sauté on medium heat until onion is near translucent.
3) Place yogurt and salt (and red pepper if desired) in blender. Cool spice/onion/garlic mix and then blend with yogurt/salt until smooth. Add yogurt to thin as needed.
4) Stir into or pour over warm, cooked meat (chicken, beef, lamb), and vegetables (I like to use one carrot, halved and sliced, 1 cup cauliflower florets, 1 cup fresh green beans, cut into 1-inch pieces and/or one red bell pepper cut into pieces). Garnish with parsley.
Hawaii is the endangered species capital of the United States, according to paleoecologist David Burney, author of Back to the Future In the Caves of Kauai (Yale, 2010). Closely associated with the work of the National Tropical Botanical Garden (NTBG), Burney and his wife, Lida, also an archeologist, have spent over three decades studying ancient sites around the world looking for answers to the question, “What is it about human arrival in any place that is so inevitably troublesome for nature?” Since 1992, their focus has been the Makauwahi Cave, an ancient volcanic sinkhole adjoining Mahaulepu Beach on the south shore of the island of Kauai, the oldest of the Hawaiian chain. Here they asked, “What has happened there in recent millennia and might happen in the near future, and what can this tell us about the rest of the planet?”
When I was first told about the work at this site by a guide at the nearby Allerton and McBryde Gardens, I was only mildly intrigued. What’s the big deal excavating an area that at most was only occupied by humans for 800 to 1,000 years, and before that no large mammals, and limited plant life? How could anyone get excited about the tedious work of taking deep core samples of earth to sift through in search of bone fragments from extinct birds, shells from extinct snails, and plant pollen also from extinct plant species? But, at the prompting of my guide, and as the cave was located within only five miles of the place where I was staying for three weeks, I purchased an autographed copy of Burney’s book at the NTBG shop.
Several times I would pick up the book and try to get enthused about its contents. Finally, I decided to go on a day excursion with Lesley to visit the cave site. Our concierge didn’t even know about this ‘famous’ place; rather, she pointed us to a more well known cave along the highway 50 miles distant in Hanalei. We looked at the book and said, “Nope, that can’t be it.” In fact, Makauwahi cave was on a nearby horse ranch adjoining our favorite beach. Once part of a huge sugar cane plantation, it was now only accessible along bumpy dirt washboard roads (“Shh! don’t tell the car rental company!”).
After navigating a few especially deep ruts, we came to a place that we thought might be the site described in Burney’s book. This was confirmed when we saw a small sign and a wayside stand with a free guide-map for a trail around the path of the cave. The only other inquisitive folk joining us on the tour were a wonderful family of Japanese.
Indeed the trail was wonderfully marked and the pamphlet informative enough as we hiked along. In the near distance I could see the inviting white sands of Mahaulepu Beach, our ultimate destination. In the meantime we circled the periphery of a deep sinkhole with digging and excavating equipment and deep holes scattered along its sides. This was indeed a perfect place for the sands of time and seas to sweep in and around; there was even a small inlet stream with a swampy area and small bridges conveniently placed for our easy crossing. Considering that Burney was unable to secure funding from the NTBG and wound up raising money to complete this project himself, I offered silent thanks for a job truly well done.
What caught my attention and impressed me most besides the breathtaking vista of a huge crater with mountains circling what was once a mammoth sugar cane field was that the area surrounding the cave was planted with endemic Hawaiian species matching the ancient plant fragments and spores that Burney and company unearthed in the cave below. He is actually trying to ‘rewild’ this area, as it is called in paleoecology terms, by weeding out non-endemic species and planting threatened native plants. An elaborate irrigation system was in place to allow these plants to get started, but will eventually be removed so things can thrive naturally as they once did over 1,000 years ago.
David Burney calls the cave a “poor man’s time machine.” So this is what is meant by the title of his book! I laud his attempt to make his book sound as exciting as “Raiders of the Lost Ark” (which it isn’t,), but the title serves wonderfully the idealistic vision embodied by a noble enterprise -- one that we can all hope will catch on and endure not only on Kauai, but also on other places around the globe as we begin to take the threat of global warning seriously. The excavation and subsequent ‘rewilding’ of Makauwahe Cave and its surroundings can, in the meantime, serve as a place where visitors can experience what it may have been like before humans came to inhabit the land.
It is obvious that David Burney’s adventures in the dark muck of eons of silt, sand and debris is intended to serve as a model of what we as humans, the one species most responsible for devastating nature wherever we have set foot on this planet, can do to make amends and return it to the wild splendor of its prehuman past.
Photos by Michael Tierra
Most herbalists have learned that preparing several herbs in a formula which are extracted together or brewed into a tea causes the infinite number of biochemical constituents to interact and to some extent alter so that a formula has the potential of becoming more than the sum of its parts. In particular, Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM) is largely based on the use of time-honored complex herbal formulations.Underscoring this practice is the understanding that the most effective treatment is when both the “root and branch,” that is, the presenting symptoms and underlying constitutional imbalances that give rise to them, are attended to with the various components of any of thousands of different TCM formulas. This is only true to a simpler or lesser extent with the practice of Western herbal medicine.
Western Simpling versus Eastern Formulating
The great late 19th century North American Eclectic herbalist Dr. John Raymond Scudder wrote an important book entitled “Specific Medicines” where such renowned North American herbs such as goldenseal (Hydrastis canadensis), Echinacea (Echinacea angustifolia) and black cohosh (Cimicifuga racemosa), to name only three, are described in terms of their specific uses and doses. In turn, the great herbal pharmacist John Uri Lloyd of Lloyd Bros. Pharmaceuticals produced outstanding alcohol-based extracts of these herbs, and these were widely used and sold throughout the country. Extracts of single herbs like those created by Lloyd supported the mono-herb therapeutic practice called “simpling.” Modern herbal product lines continue to make extacts of single herbs, easily found in health food stores around the country, and thus the practice of simpling is still common today. Because rows and rows of such single herb extracts are so visible on store shelves, the general public has yet to develop an understanding of the superior therapeutic results a well-crafted herbal formula can produce.
One herb taken repeatedly (unless it is a tonic such as ginseng) is limited in its scope of action and unable to attend to the principle of ‘root and branch’ described above. There is also a greater risk of adverse reaction in the event that some latent toxic reaction to an herb becomes apparent. Western herbalists, including myself, are still dismayed by the liver toxicity, genuine or not, reported when people take herbs such as comfrey, kava or ephedra (often for non-traditional reasons), ultimately resulting in these herbs being banned from commerce. TCM and Ayurvedic formulators neutralize or lessen the toxicity of some herbs either by prior preparation or by carefully combining them with sweet herbs and substances such as licorice, jujube dates, honey or ghee.
This is not to say that professional Western herbalists do not prescribe complex formulations, but with very few exceptions, these are strictly according to individual need and do not achieve the longevity and durability that similar TCM formulas have. As examples of classic formula building blocks that have stood the test of time, any Chinese herbalist knows that Four-Substance Decoction (Si Wu Tang) consisting of the roots of dang gui (Angelica sinensis), peony (Paeonia lactiflora, bai shao), rehmannia (Rehmannia glutinosa, shu di huang) and ligusticum (Ligusticum chuanxiong, chuan xiong) is for Blood deficiency and can be modified in numerous ways to treat any condition associated with Blood and circulation. Similarly, Four Gentlemen (Si Jun Zi Tang) consisting of ginseng (Panax ginseng, ren shen), atractylodes (Atractylodes macrocephela, bai zhu), poria (Poria cocos, fu ling) and licorice (Glycyrrhiza uralensis, zhi gan cao) is for Qi deficiency and is also subject to countless variations and permutations. These are some of the most famous, and but there are many more like them in Chinese herbal medicine. In Ayurveda, the formula Triphala, consisting of three myrobalan fruits each addressing the excesses of each of the three Ayurvedic humours, is perhaps, in my estimation, the single greatest formula of all time and finds itself embedded in most Ayurvedic formulations as well as prescribed separately as part of a healing program for all patients. No such formulas can be found in Western herbal practice.
Dui yao formulation
Many of the therapeutic goals of an entire TCM formula can come down to the use of two herbs, or dui yao (dui means “two” and yao means “herbs”). In this way large complex formulations can be created based on individual root imbalances and branch symptoms by incorporating specific herb pairs. The increased scope of efficacy of two herbs, rather than one, for a particular condition or symptoms promises a better, more wholistic, healing result. There are many reasons and ways two herbs are mated to interact with each other. One is pure synergy where both have a similar purpose. Another is complementary where one herb has a primary function, while the other either facilitates that function or counterbalances any possible negative reaction.
Western herbal medicine does have a few such ‘unofficial’ combinations such as echinacea and goldenseal for infections. Dr. Christopher, an exponent of the cayenne (Capsicum spp.) metabolic warming school of Western herbal medicine, recommended combining cayenne, an irritating stimulant, with olive oil to lessen its burning qualities. His 19th century predecessor, the iconoclastic Dr. Samuel Thompson, frequently combined cayenne with bayberry bark (Myrica cerifera) and ginger (Zingiber officinale) in the famous Composition Powder Formula to achieve a synergistic internal metabolic heating effect which often turned the tide of many acute upper respiratory diseases.
Following are a number of simple Western dui yao or two-herb possibilities that can be considered for effective and efficient formulation:
- Parsley root (Petroselinum crispum) and gravel root (Eupatorium purpureum) for urinary stones
- Elderflower (Sambucus nigra) and yarrow (Achillea millefolium) for colds and flu
- Oregon grape (Mahonia spp.) and wild yam (Dioscorea villosa) for liver and gall bladder complaints
- Dandelion root (Taraxacum officinale) and burdock (Arctium lappa) for detoxification and blood purification; cancer
- Uva ursi (Arctostaphylos uva ursi) and cherry stems (Prunus avium) for cystitis
- Hawthorn (Crataegus monogyna) and motherwort (Leonurus cardiac) for cardiovascular disease
- Gravel root and marshmallow root (Althaea officinale) for urinary stones
- Yerba santa (Eriodictyon californicum) and mullein (Verbascum thapsus) for upper respiratory congestion
- Thyme (Thymus vulgaris) and California poppy (Eschscholtzia californica) for coughs
- Red clover (Trifolium praetense) and burdock root for cancer
- Valerian (Valeriana officinalis) and hops (Humulus lupulus) for insomnia
- California poppy and valerian for insomnia
- Angelica root (Angelica archangelica) and gentian (Gentiana lutea) for digestive disorders
- Slippery elm (Ulmus fulva) and Marshmallow root for gi tract ulcers
- Cascara sagrada (Rhamnus purshiana) and rhubarb (Rheum spp.) for constipation
- Sassafras (Sassafras spp) and sarsaparilla (Smilax spp.) for joint pains
- Black cohosh and blue cohosh (Caulophyllum thalictroides) for menstrual irregularities
- False unicorn root (Chamaelirium luteum) and cramp bark (Viburnum opulus) or black haw (Viburnum prunifolium) for infertility and threatened miscarriage.
Following are some classic TCM dui yao combinations:
- Ginseng and atractylodes for deficient Qi
- Astragalus (Astragalus membranaceus, huang qi) and dang gui for anemia
- Licorice and peony for gastric pains
- Poria and Alisma (Alismatis orientalis, ze xie), for dampness and fluid retention
- Fermented herbs (shen chiu) and hawthorn fruit (shan zha) for digestive weakness
- Ophiopogon (Ophiopogon japonica, mai men dong) and prepared rehmannia for yin deficiency
- Bupleurum (Bupleurum falcatum, chai hu) and white peony for anxiety and mood disorders
- Boswellia and myrrh (Commiphora spp., mo yao) for rheumatic and arthritic pains
In Ayurveda, the principle of herb pairs is illustrated in the many different guggul formulations. Guggul is a special preparation of Commiphora mukul, which is very closely related to and possibly interchangeable with myrrh. Guggul is deeply detoxifying and is commonly combined with the Triphala. The all-purpose guggul variety is Yogaraj guggul, and it is effective for circulatory conditions, joint pain and stiffness, high cholesterol, thyroid and low metabolism. Other herbs may be added to create various guggul preparations specific for the urinary tract, respiratory conditions, and others. (To my knowledge, the only company carrying an excellent specialty line of various guggul preparations is Banyan Botanicals.) In the western world, guggul is primarily sold because of its ability to lower blood lipids. In my opinion, while guggul is effective for this, only using it for this purpose sells it far short of its potential. It has a much wider application as an anti-inflammatory for a variety of rheumatic aches, pains and strains for which it is a virtual panacea. Sometimes it will show a benefit after one or two doses, but for best results take the indicated dose two or three times daily for at least two weeks.
Extending the dui yao concept to whole formula blending
A practice made possible by the advent of whole formula herb extracts as well as the Plum Flower line of traditional herbal formulas is the expansion of the principle of dui yao further to include the combination of multiple entire or near entire herbal formulas. Like herb pairs, formula pairs are dosed according to the root-branch principle where the branch or primary complaint and symptoms is allotted no less than 30 percent of a formula, while the various underlying deficiencies and excesses are assigned a correspondingly lesser percentage based on the patient’s unique presentation.
In my clinical experience, seldom do I see a patient whose symptoms so neatly correspond to the description of a traditional formulation as described in a book. People present very complex and often what seem like contradictory symptoms, where for example both heat and cold, or yin and yang are imbalanced. In such conditions one can combine formulas with opposite atmospheric (hot or cold) properties so long as the herbs or formulas target different symptoms. For example, a drying formula for the lungs and respiratory tract may be combined with a lubricating or Yin-nourishing formula for the Kidney-adrenals. Here the sovereign rule of prescribing heating or stimulating herbs for cold diseases and cooling, detoxifying herbs for hot or inflammatory diseases is limited to specific organ systems. This is where herb or herbal formula combining really makes the difference over giving one herb for one symptom.
The above touches on higher principles of herbal formulation and practice. Perhaps it is a bit too esoteric for the average consumer, but it is time that the public who looks to herbs for their health needs understand that herbal formulations are often more effective than single herbs. While it may take a bit more work to understand, the art of herbal formulation has been at the heart of herbal medicine for thousands of years and in all ancient cultures.
Why would one ever want to thank an illness? After all, illness is often distracting, discouraging, depressing, even painful. What good is there in that?
Most people feel this way – I certainly have over the years – and they do anything they can to relieve their symptoms. Yet, most approaches to alleviating health issues are just “band-aid” cures that relieve symptoms but don’t usually heal the underlying cause. True healing treats the source of an illness so the symptoms don’t reappear or dive deeper to create other problems. At the East West School of Planetary Herbology, we teach energetics of herbs and diseases just for this reason: so you can treat the root of an illness.
But what if the root cause to your health problem is not physical? What do you do then?
In over 30 years of my clinical practice, I have found that the source of many health issues is not physical, but actually emotional, mental or spiritual. My own health issues have proven this over and over as well. To that end, I have studied many methods of healing for over 40 years and in that time and through those studies have learned one major lesson: to heal a chronic health issue, it’s necessary to seek its true source and embrace rather than banish it.
Most of us try to sweep stuff under the rug, take an easy pill or find quick cures so we can get on with our lives. But true long-lasting healing means going into an issue, not around it. And yet – and this is a big YET – embracing and going through a root cause does not mean re-living past traumas and wounds. In fact, it’s nearly impossible to heal an emotional issue on the emotional level or a mental issue on the mental level. Rather, to heal our core issues it’s necessary to take them to another level entirely. And what level is that? The level of the universal story.
So what’s a universal story? It’s a metaphor, myth, archetype, or image that contacts forces common to everyone regardless of gender, culture, race, religion, politics or nation. They are original models, pure essences of energy, elemental ideas and universal principles from which others are copied.
Metaphors, myths, archetypes, and images are grander themes that influence us all. They are found everywhere – in songs, art, poetry, literature, fairy tales, folk tales and dreams. They tell a bigger story of enduring truths and timeless teachings. We relate to their various characters and situations as life themes common to us all. As well, they reflect our potential depth, for when we contemplate them we evoke their powers. In short, they are the universal stories by which we live our lives, just like the hero’s and heroine’s journeys.
To use a universal story for healing a health issue, first determine any recurring patterns behind your condition and then choose the universal story that best fits this pattern. Next, process it through ceremony and ritual. For example, drum, dance or dialogue with your universal story; set up an altar; create some form of art with it such as a poem, painting, or song; do a ceremony with fire, water, earth or air; take a power walk or night walk; or perform severing, burning, tearing, or burying with it.
This is how you can learn why you’ve had chronic irritable bowels, recurring sinus infections or “incurable” depression. This is where you learn the teachings and lessons of your asthma or hepatitis; even more, you open yourself to receive the gifts of your illness. You’ve had this illness for some reason, and if changing your diet and lifestyle and taking the proper herbs don’t fully heal it, there’s a deeper emotional, mental or spiritual cause to clear. This is the key process used to dig out that root so it doesn’t return.
To receive the teachings, lessons, messages and gifts from a chronic illness that’s long caused you pain and difficulty is an amazing experience, one that actually changes your life by creating subtle to major shifts. This is where gratitude plays a starring role. To swing your perspective from “go away” to “teach me your message and gift” creates all the difference in how you approach and heal illness. The latter method is what leads to lasting healing, full resolution and ultimately, major life growth.
I’ve certainly undergone this process myself repeatedly. For the last 40 years I have personally experienced the power of this healing approach and helped others to do so, too. To that end, I finally wrote a book teaching the simple steps to shifting your illness from a recurring problem to a healing ally. Called Metaphor-phosis: Transform Your Stories from Pain to Power, it includes not only a complete toolbox to make your invisible stuff visible so you can transform your life, but also my 40-year story of how I healed my own health issues through this process.
If you want to learn the full method for healing the emotional, mental or spiritual root causes of chronic issues, Metaphor-phosis is just now being printed and we are taking early orders. Go to my book’s page in our store to receive discounts on early orders as my gift of thanks to you!
May you learn how to thank your illness so you can fully heal and move further into your full potential and authentic self!
Find out more about this amazing healing process at Lesley's Metaphor-phosis website, including great tips found on her blog and upcoming classes.
And don't forget to 'like' Metaphor-phosis on Facebook!
“What is the difference between a tonic in eastern versus western herbalism?”
This question, launched at me during our last seminar, was a good one that deserved more attention than I could give at that time so I decided to write a blog about it. However, the more I dug into this topic, the longer the response grew. Just the essentials are included here.
First, let’s take a look at the meaning of the word “tonic” as defined by various dictionaries: “A medicine producing a sense of well-being”; “A medicine that invigorates or strengthens”; “An invigorating, refreshing, or restorative agent or influence”; and “Increasing or restoring physical or mental tone.”
The short answer to the difference between an eastern and western tonic is this:
Whether an herb is a tonic or not depends on its culture.
In other words, tonic herbs are culture-specific. In general, the main difference between eastern and western tonics is that eastern tonics add something to the body where there is a deficiency, while western tonics improve the function of an organ or system, which more often than not means clearing and cleansing rather than building.
Now down to the basics.
To the Chinese, a tonic is a substance that builds strength and function. As such, it increases Qi, Blood, Yin or Yang in particular organs and the entire body in general. These are as follows:
Qi tonics strengthen Qi, the vital life force that animates all sentient life. Qi provides immunity; transforms food and drink into usable energy, blood and other substances; holds the blood in the vessels and the organs in place; transports nutrients; warms the body; and provides metabolic power.
Deficient Qi occurs when there isn’t enough energy to perform the body’s various functions. Symptoms include low vitality, lethargy, shortness of breath, slow metabolism, frequent colds and flu with slow recovery, a low soft voice, spontaneous sweating, frequent urination, prolapsed organs, hemorrhoids, and palpitations. Herbs that tonify Qi include ginseng (Panax ginseng), codonopsis (Codonopsis pilosulae), astragalus (Astragalus membranaceus), jujube dates (Zizyphus sativa) and dioscorea (Dioscorea batatas) also known as Chinese wild yam).
Blood tonics nourish, moisten and provide nutrients to the cells, organs, brain, muscles, tendons, bones, skin, hair, eyes, sinews, tongue, and other body parts.
Deficient blood arises when there’s insufficient blood to perform its nourishing and moistening functions. Symptoms include dizziness, blurry vision, numbness, restlessness, anxiety, slight irritability, insomnia, scanty menses or amenorrhea, thinness or emaciation, dark spots in the visual field, dry skin, hair or eyes, lusterless, pale face and lips, tiredness, easily startled or overwhelmed, and poor memory. Blood tonics include dang gui (Angelica sinensis), lycii berries (Lycium barbarum), cooked rehmannia (Rehmannia glutinosa, shu di huang), white peony (Paeonia lactiflora) and longan berries (Euphoria longan).
Yang tonics provide energy and warmth, increasing the ability to circulate, transform and warm all aspects of the body. These aid such processes such as metabolism, libido, appetite, digestion and assimilation.
Deficient Yang arises when there isn’t enough metabolic heat, or fire, to warm the body, transform fluids or promote circulation. Symptoms include feelings of coldness, copious clear urination, white copious or runny discharges, pale frigid appearance, cold limbs, lassitude, fatigue, edema, loose stools or diarrhea, night-time urination, infertility, impotence, frigidity, and undigested food in the stool. Herbs that tonify Yang include dipsacus (Dipsacus asperi), morinda (Morindae officinalis), cordyceps (Cordyceps sinensis) and cuscuta (Cuscuta chinensis).
Yin tonics are cooling, moistening, lubricating, and build substance. They are good for dry, inflamed tissues. Deficient yin is often equated to “burn-out” where someone has “burnt the candle at both ends.” This most often occurs from over-working physically or mentally, yet it may also arise from excessive dryness in the body, too much heat burning off fluids, and/or insufficient diet for the body’s needs.
Deficient Yin is a lack of cooling, moistening fluids with resulting depletion (fatigue, exhaustion, emaciation or thinness) along with the following specific heat and dryness signs: night sweats, malar flush (redness and burning heat along the cheeks and nose), burning sensation in the palms of the hands, soles of the feet and in the chest, afternoon fever or feelings of heat, restless sleep, dry throat or thirst at night, agitation, mental restlessness, dry cough, dry stools, and scanty dark urine. Herbs that tonify Yin include ophiopogon (Ophiopogon japonicas), raw rehmannia (Rehmannia glutinosa – sheng di huang;), or Chinese asparagus root (Asparagus cochinensis).
In Ayurveda there are also different types of tonics, yet like Chinese medicine, most of these are building and strengthening. Here are some of them.
Rasayanas are tonics that enhance the body’s strength and immunity. They are useful for those who are underweight, frail, or have weak muscles. Typically specially prepared foods are used such as figs, dates, walnuts, almonds, milk, and honey.
Tonic formulas are typically given to build blood and energy. Generally a large number of herbs are formulated together, and one takes them regularly in small doses for long periods of time. Chyavanprash (builds blood, energy and immunity) and Triphala (tones intestinal tissue and Qi) are good examples.
Tonic herbs are similar to Chinese medicine in building energy, blood, endurance and vitality. Examples include amalaki (Emblica officinalis), which rebuilds and maintains new tissues and increases red blood cell count; ashoka (Saraca asoca), which tones the uterus; ashwagandha (Withania somnifera) which rejuvenates the body from general debility, sexual debility and nervous exhaustion; and shatavari (Asparagus racemosus), which supports the female reproductive system and rejuvenates pitta.
Western herbalism defines tonics quite differently than Eastern medicines, for these herbs have normalizing and nurturing effects. The nurturing western tonics, categorized as adaptogens or trophorestoratives, are similar to Qi tonics in Chinese medicine, while the normalizing tonics have quite a different meaning altogether.
Adaptogens help the body adapt to environmental factors to avoid damage by them such as various environmental, physiological or psychological stressors. They can increase energy, vitality and endurance. This makes them closest to Qi and Yang tonics in Chinese medicine. Examples include eleuthero (Eleutherococcus senticosus), which increases energy, vitality, concentration and endurance, and helps the body better withstand stress; and rhodiola (Rhodiola rosea), which improves physical and mental performance and reduces fatigue.
Trophorestoratives build strength and function of specific organs or body systems. As nutritive restoratives, these are most similar to Yin and Blood tonics in Chinese medicine, although in some cases they fit the normalizing tonics category (see below). Trophorestoratives restore normal function to tissues that suffer from a vital deficiency. Example herbs include oats (Avena sativa) for the nervous system, nettle seed (Urtica spp.) for the kidneys, milk thistle (Silybum marianum) for the liver, and ashwagandha (Withania somnifera) for the endocrine system.
Normalizing tonics tone an organ or system or help it function better. For example, the famous bitter tonics (see below) are herbs that stimulate the release of bile, helping digestion of fats and protein and stimulating peristalsis of the intestines, aiding elimination. Hawthorn (Crataegus oxycantha) is a cardiovascular system (CVS) tonic because it tones the CVS while lowering blood pressure and dilating blood vessels. Gingko (Gingko biloba) is a tonic that improves cognition.
Normalizing tonics are quite a different concept than the Chinese tonics because they improve organs or systems not through increasing Qi, Blood, Yang or Yin, but by stimulating or activating certain functions in the body. In the case of what the West calls “bitter tonics,” to the Chinese, bitter herbs dry dampness and clear heat, both of which are eliminating (cleansing) rather than building. For example, hawthorn is traditionally used by the Chinese to clear food stagnation and help digest protein. It improves the digestive system not through building, but through cleansing.
Blood tonics referred to by western herbalists are really alteratives, blood purifiers, or herbs high in iron. Generally, all of these herbs cleanse and detoxify the blood. Herbs high in iron increase hematocrit levels (the volume percentage of red blood cells in the blood) and so theoretically increase blood. However, they are also dry and bitter, which according to traditional Chinese medical theory, actually depletes blood. Examples include yellow dock (Rumex crispus), nettle (Urtica spp.), dandelion (Taraxacum mongolicum), burdock (Arctium lappa) and red clover (Trifolium pratense).
Once at an AHG conference I talked with Australian herbalist Isla Burgess about western blood tonics. We found that both of us had come to the same conclusion on opposite sides of the world: western blood tonics do not actually build the blood. They might cleanse it, but they do not create more blood. However, if they are combined with molasses, they do build blood because molasses is extremely high in iron (the herbs with iron do not have high enough levels by themselves to actually build blood). When using western bitter or drying herbs in someone who is Blood or Yin deficient, it is extremely important to add molasses to the formula.
In general, the main difference in tonics between eastern and western herbalism is that in the eastern tonics add something to the body where there is a deficiency, while in western tonics improve the function of an organ or system, which more often than not means clearing and cleansing.
It is important to note that when using western tonics (that aren’t adaptogens or trophorestoratives) for those who are Blood or Yin deficient, one should supplement clearing and cleansing tonics with cooling, moistening herbs and/or molasses. This is because clearing and cleansing herbs are generally drying and/or bitter, both of which clear dampness. As Yin and Blood are fluidic in nature, such herbs deplete both and so can make a Yin or Blood deficient person worse, or cause other health problems. This particularly applies to what western herbalists call “blood tonics,” as here one would expect to make more blood while in fact, it is further depleted instead.
And now as I finish this “short” answer, I just found Candis Cantin’s great article on the same subject, which she posted back on our site in 2010! So click here to learn more!
Once upon a time, when people got sick they knew that that they must “drink their bitter brew” to get well. Presumably this meant some sort of herbal tea or other liquid potion. While native and traditional cultures barely bat an eye as they wash down sometimes large doses of nasty-tasting stuff, taking herbs in this way becomes less appealing as we grow more accustomed to the conveniences and comforts of modern times. Thankfully, we have several options for getting the medicine down, as outlined below.
Teas, Tinctures and other Liquid Preparations
Liquid herbal medications are best for the intestines, stimulating blood circulation and restoring the balance of homeostasis. Liquid options are especially useful for severe, intractable diseases.
Infusions are made by steeping herbs in a covered vessel of hot freshly boiled water. This prevents the dissipation and evaporation of volatile elements that are considered vital to the therapeutic effect, particularly for diaphoretics. By such a method one does not get all of the deeper minerals found in popularly infused aromatic herbs such as mint, chamomile, or lemon balm.
A decoction is made by a prolonged cooking method resulting in what the Chinese call a tang or “soup.” Heavier substances, including hard roots, branches and minerals are boiled (decocted) specifically to extract their deeper constituents. As a result, the more volatile elements are lost during the process of evaporation. Decoctions take anywhere from 20 to 45 minutes; the dregs are strained out and the resulting tea is taken at room temperature.
Extra long boiling is necessary to transform and neutralize toxic elements of certain herbs. This is most important for one of Chinese medicine’s most poisonous but commonly used herbs, fu zi or aconite (Aconitum napellus) also known as “monkshood.” Most of the time a processed and detoxified version is used, but this too requires about an hour of decocting before it is safe to ingest. Western herbalists never learned or utilized a way to neutralize the poisonous properties of aconite. In fact it was commonly used in ancient times up through the European renaissance as a poison to get rid of someone you didn’t like. Medicinally, only single drop doses diluted in water are used.
Minerals or shells such as crushed gypsum to lower fevers, iron for the blood or oyster shell for calcium, also require extra long boiling. Traditional Chinese Medicines require that these are boiled first and separately for up to 45 minutes before the rest of the formula is introduced.
Ever since the 12th century the Chinese, who invented the pill, have been prescribing them much as we do today. Ancient formulas were often prepared as pills made from milled herbs bound with water, honey, ginger juice, or other substances. In villages in India and China local herbalists still roll pills by hand. Smaller sized pills are favored because they are easier to swallow. Therapeutic dosages of powders or pills range between 3-10 grams daily. That's usually a small handful of pills, taken two or three times a day. Though it may seem like a lot of pills, it's really only a few grams of medicine.
Pills, especially the small teapills manufactured by Chinese pharmacies is most effective for relieving stagnation and congestion and treating wind-cold conditions such as colds and flu. Pills have the advantage of being able to be taken over a prolonged period of time and are therefore best for chronic disease.
Powders consist of small particles of herbs with multiple surfaces that are particularly beneficial for stomach and intestinal problems. Powders are also best for suddenly erupting diseases such as a skin rash.
In fact, most traditional cultures would not take herbs as a tea but as raw powders. So long as the powder is either freshly ground or no older than three to six months, this method may be the most efficacious way to ingest medicinal herbs. Taking an herb ground into a powder means that all of it is consumed and nothing is lost through the process of evaporation and volatilization, nor through the extractive process where the extract is siphoned from the “mark” which may still contain some minerals and constituents.
Powders are also cost effective. This is because there is no selective extraction that occurs when we use alcohol or some other extractive to make herbal tinctures, to have the properties evaporate and dissipate as a result of making a hot tea decoction. Therefore, one is actually ingesting the whole herb in powder form.
Indian villagers take herbal powder by smearing it on the palm of the right hand with honey and perhaps a little ghee (clarified butter) and licking it off. Besides the fact that honey and butter tend to make anything tastier, these serve as “carriers” (called anupans in Ayurveda) and are thought to enhance an herb’s therapeutic properties by carrying them into the deeper tissue layers of the body.
Extracts (Tinctures, Glycerites, Aceta)
The constituents of herbs can be extracted by water, alcohol, vinegar, glycerine, or chemical solvents. Most herbalists prefer to use low temperature water extractions rather than the standardized extractions used by “herbaceutical” pill manufacturers. Simply soaking an herb in alcohol, vinegar, or glycerine yields extracts and this method is called “simpling.” They're easy to make and to take.
Strategic timing for taking herbal medicine
Many ask the best time to take herbs. The following is a rough guideline:
Timing around meals
Herbs can be taken before meals to stimulate digestion or when a person’s symptoms occur before eating.
Herbal extract and tinctures can be taken while eating if there is a problem while ingesting food.
Generally speaking “herbal bitters” can be taken in small amount before eating to stimulate the body’s digestive secretions and one’s appetite or after meals to relieve bloating. A teaspoon or tablespoon should be a sufficient dose.
Gastroesophageal reflux (GERD) is a very common complaint, answered by the huge market of antacids and pharmaceuticals with long-term negative side effects. But one of the simplest treatments is to simply go to your spice cabinet, mix together a pinch of every spice and take a teaspoon of the powder washed down with room temperature water.
Herbs that are intended to go to the liver, Kidneys, intestines or reproductive organs are taken after meals.
Often this can be too complicated for people who are on the go to follow so my basic thought is to take herbs regularly before meals. If there is any discomfort, try switching to taking them after meals.
Another simple and basic approach is to take tonic formulas before meals (when you body is most ready to digest food) and the more eliminating and detoxifying formulas after meals.
Other considerations for enhancing the effects of herbal medicines
Conditions caused or aggravated by cold should be treated with hot medicines (i.e., teas and decoctions). This would include the early stages of colds as well as respiratory allergies.
If the condition is caused or aggravated by heat, or to provoke urination, give room temperature herbal preparations.
When treating low energy, the addition of a little honey or some sweet flavored substances such as jujube or other dates and a small amount of licorice will serve as a carrier for herbs like ginseng.
When treating Kidney adrenals with symptoms of lower back, knee, joint pains, low libido and urinary problems taking the appropriate formula with a pinch of salt or soya sauce will help focus and direct the action of the herbs to the intended Kidney-Adrenals.
When someone is nutritionally compromised and weak, tonic herbs are best taken in soups.
One should never brew herbal teas in certain types of metal containers. This especially applies to iron or aluminum pots where the soluble metallic ions can alter the chemistry of the medicinal herbs. The ideal medium for preparing herb teas is a clay or glass receptacle. Good quality stainless steel is neutral and does not leach metallic and is therefore also all right to use.
You’ve just made an herbal formula for a new client. She took it for several days, but then began to get sick! You wonder: Is your client having a ‘healing crisis,’ or did you give her the wrong formula?
Telling the difference between a healing crisis or a reaction to the wrong formula is usually not difficult, but at some times of the year, it can be tricky. Transition periods between seasons are when people are more vulnerable to colds and flu, and summer to fall is the riskiest of these. A client like the one mentioned above might get sick now neither from a healing crisis nor wrong formula.
Seasonal influences aside, let's review how you can tell the difference between a healing crisis and when you have administered the wrong formula.
The Healing Crisis
A "healing crisis" manifests as an acute illness after beginning a healing protocol, such as change of diet or new herbal routine. The symptoms could be a cold, flu, fever, diarrhea, or minor skin eruption. A healing crisis could also evoke emotional responses such as vulnerability, fear and anger.
A healing crisis arises quickly and is short-lived. Afterward, the person usually feels better than before they began the healing process. Despite its alarming and confusing nature, a healing crisis is actually a sign of improvement. When such symptoms occur, they shouldn't be arrested; stop the formula and give herbs and formulas to treat the present symptoms. When the healing crisis is over, reassess the person’s condition before returning to the original formula, taking into account new signs and symptoms.
Sometimes a healing crisis manifests as symptoms of an old illness. This occurrence is described by the Law of Cure. Observed by Samuel Hahnemann in the 18th century when he founded homeopathy, the Law of Cure says that the various symptoms that arise during the course of recovery reflect the different stages at which the body is healing. Typically, the body heals its most recent disease first, then it works back through other diseases until the oldest one is healed. Generally, symptoms first occur on the surface of the body and move from the top of the body down.
For example, someone who suffers from recurrent bronchitis and begins a course of natural healing with herbs might experience a renewal of teenage chronic colds, and later on her childhood eczema might return. The eczema may start on the arms and then move down to the legs. In time, her body gathers enough strength and energy to throw it off entirely. These symptoms eventually disappear, and a healing of her chronic bronchitis can take place. Through this process, the root cause of her condition is eradicated.
Furthermore, a healing crisis usually occurs in the midst of much greater improvement. Examine all new symptoms and look for genuine indications of health, such as increased energy and vitality. If these are also present, the new discomfort is likely a part of the healing crisis.
Finally, from a long view, old physical or emotional symptoms eliminated through healing crises usually never return.
But what if your client’s sudden illness is actually the result of a wrong herbal formula?
In this case, her new acute symptoms will worsen. On the other hand, she may not manifest an acute condition at all, but she’ll get hotter, colder, dryer or damper or will feel “off” in some other way.
If your client’s undesirable symptoms disappear when the formula is stopped, then it is likely they received the wrong formula. If it’s a healing crisis, the symptoms continue for about three days or until the detoxification is complete, regardless of whether the formula is taken or not.
There are some exceptions of course. If you treat someone and they get worse, and yet when you stop the herbs they still don’t improve, then reassess and give a new formula for the current condition. If they immediately get better, you know your formula was wrong; if they don’t improve, ask the person how they feel. Often a person is aware they are cleansing and it “feels good” in some way, despite their new undesirable symptoms. If so, it’s a healing crisis. If not, reassess your herbs once more.
Generally, giving the “wrong” formula is a useful diagnostic tool. How someone reacts to particular herbs can give important information about what is actually going on. To determine if this is the case, first examine your formula to make sure it doesn’t contain herbs that could cause undesirable symptoms. If there are, then modify the formula. But if there aren’t, reassess the person’s patterns and constitution.
Always check your dosages. Symptoms of overdose or genuine allergic reactions to herbs usually appear soon after starting the herbs, and the symptoms disappear after the herbs are stopped.
If you think the formula is wrong, it’s possible that only an herb or two may need changing, or else another herb may need to be added to ameliorate the symptoms caused by the formula. For example, if the person feels angrier after taking a formula with bupleurum, either they need to ease into the full dose, or else Liver-softening herbs (like white peony), Blood tonics (for instance dang gui), or Yin tonics (such as eclipta) should be added.
If there’s little to no improvement with no signs of a healing crisis, first check to see if the person is ingesting enough of the formula and taking it frequently enough. Too many times have I seen someone take the right formula and not get results, only to find they weren’t consuming it often enough or taking too small a dose! This is often the case if the person is somewhat better but not enough to feel the formula is working; interrogation may reveal that the client took it in too small or infrequent doses. When this happens, don’t change the formula, but emphasize the right amount and times to take it and send them home with the same herbs (and a written reminder if needed).
Sometimes people don’t realize they are better until they run out of their formula and then feel worse. It’s not unusual for people to forget their symptoms once they disappear! In fact, it’s very useful during follow-up sessions to review the first intake and all the symptoms originally presented. Quite often people come in disappointed that one symptom still lingers, but then are pleasantly surprised to discover that the other five complaints they presented on their first intake have disappeared during the course of treatment. If several issues are gone or less severe, you are obviously on the right track and your formula just needs tweaking or another herb or formula needs to be added.
Michael Tierra in the Sierra, August 2012
"I'm gathering pulsatilla which is all around me. There are also stands of mule's ears (Wyethia species) at my feet and scattered around is California osha (Oschala), green gentian, sitka valerian, monardella (coyote mint) and arnica."
“Michael, you want to go with us tomorrow morning to the Sierras?”
“Gee, Ben, sounds awfully tempting,” says I. “Let me check my schedule… Hey, I’m free!”
It didn’t take me long to emphatically say, “Yes, I think I would like – ah, er – no, I’m going!” Thus, with an unexpected clear August weekend, I finally acceded after 20 years’ worth of invitations from my outstanding former student (and now master) herbalist-acupuncturist Ben Zappin to join him for an herb class and wildcrafting expedition to the pristine California Sierra mountains. Two other herbalists, Darren Huckle and Brian Weissbuch, would also be there. I met up with Darren in Santa Cruz and we picked up Los Gatos herbalist and acupuncturist Abby Rappaport, stuffed our respective gear along with ourselves in Darren’s already crowded car, and rode into the sunrise to meet Ben, whose Sylvan Institute of Botanical Medicine in Berkeley sponsored the excursion.
The drive to the Mokelumne wilderness seemed to breeze by as we enthusiastically chatted and entertained ourselves to near exhaustion for the entire 5½-hour journey. In that car was a pretty high level, seminar-worthy discussion. And just think, we could look forward to even more on our return drive the following Sunday evening.
Weather temperatures hovered around 90 degrees in my Santa Cruz County mountain town of Ben Lomond, but the forecast for the Sierras was between 40 and 70 degrees and a promise of overcast skies and sudden showers. This was exactly what we got when we arrived on Friday afternoon and most of the day on Saturday.
Despite the threat of showers, we obeyed the need to stretch our legs and let the excitement of discovering what medicinal herbs were nearby pull us jauntily up the alpine slopes. The hills approaching the tree line indeed were alive with a wealth of botanical treasures. I think the others shared my feeling that it was like meeting beloved friends and relatives.
What we encountered over the span of 40 minutes was Valeriana sitchenensis (wild sitka valerian); Anemone drummondi (windflower or pulsatilla); Angelica brewerii which some compare rightly or wrongly to the properties of Chinese dang gui; Osmorhiza occidentalis (commonly known as sweet cicely), Arnica longifolia; numerous fragrant small stands of monardella (coyote mint); Ligusticum greyii (called “oschala” because it is similarly used as an upper respiratory antiviral similar to its better known Southwestern relative “osha” – Ligusticum porteri). The following day, in the same area, we found numerous distinctive specimens of Gentiana swertia (green gentian).
Then the heavens opened up. As Abby and I futilely tried to scramble back down for shelter, heavy raindrops soon turned into huge pellets from which our feeble raingear was no match. We were pretty well drenched, but probably not as much as Ben and Darren who elected to keep climbing in spite of the rain.
By nightfall we were pretty well set up with tents, sleeping bags and such, and the others slated to arrive began trickling in from around 5 pm. Personally, I thought it was a minor miracle that everyone found the spot. I guess Ben’s directions were pretty good. In any case I think he already had the money, so it was on them to find the location.
The first to arrive was the third of the three instructors, Brian Weissbuch, an herbalist, acupuncturist, wildcrafter and medicine-maker extraordinaire. I was a tag-along guest and despite my near constant teaching during the weekend I really enjoyed being a student of these three who apparently know these Sierra alpine herbs well. With Medicinal Plants of the Mountain West by the great late herbalist, Michael Moore, Jepson Manual of Vascular Plants of California and Thomas Avery Garran’s Western Herbs according to Traditional Chinese Medicine (Thomas is the co-owner along with Ben Zappin of Sylvan Institute, both former students of mine) – well, you really don’t need any other texts to seriously identify and learn some uses for the plants of the Sierras.
Brian Weissbuch(far left) and Michael Tierra (far right) with students
The next day, because of a rainy night and morning, we had a late start, around 11 am. That was when we instructors took charge and shared our knowledge, wisdom and insight with the group of about 15 students, mostly acupuncturists who liked the idea of combining their need for CEU credits for license renewal with a short wilderness adventure.
I must say that an added feature whenever Ben Zappin is in charge of an event is his spectacular cooking. He is one of the highlights of our annual week-long East West Herb School seminar that happens each spring and he showed some of his culinary magic with a spinach egg scramble and in the evening with a delicious lamb tagine. Part of Ben’s unique talent is to integrate some of the local herbs and other medicinal herbs in his cuisine. One could hardly imagine that leaves of oschala, osmorhiza or Angelica brewerii were even present in the food, but I’m assured they were and it was delicious as only a good camp-out meal can be.
Sunday we had a review of the plants we learned the day before with attendees finding the plants instead of the instructors. We also picked up some others including the potent hemostat, potentilla (probably Potentilla diversifolia better known as cinquefoil) and solidago (possibly S. californica better known as goldenrod).
Walking across the lake to a trail up a steep hill we learned some different herbs, gooseberry (Ribes roezlii), Pedicularis densiflora (Indian warrior), the poisonous, Veratrum virides and another beautiful gentian species (probably Gentiana calycosa).
These were the primary herbs we found on our two-day Sierra herbal wildcrafter herb adventure. Of course the entire event was accompanied by light-hearted banter, good food, campfire, and some medicine singing on Sunday morning. In short, the place was spectacular, the people were great and the instruction was deep and profound.
One thing the students repeatedly said they appreciated was the sharing of different ideas, experiences and knowledge about plants and healing. Somehow, rather than being confusing, most found this to be personally empowering.
Following are some highlights from the discussion of the different plants:
Gentian is a digestive used in bitters and detoxifies damp heat. The picric acid in gentian is more explosive than actual explosives! It selectively destroys viruses and bacteria. Gentian root and calamus extract with other herbs in formula is good for wasting associated with cancer.
Ligusticum greyii or oschala, along with its near relative L. porteri (osha) is antiviral and so is used for upper respiratory infections, colds, and flu. It was used effectively for prevention and treatment during the 1918 flu epidemic. It also relieves menstrual irregularity. One of us (not me) said they used it in formula for Bell’s palsy. Ligusticum species, including the local ‘oschala’ (L. greyii) is comparable in properties and use to Chinese lovage (gao ben). This and all angelicas should not be taken during pregnancy.
Angelica brewerii is regarded by some as the Western counterpart of the popular Chinese blood tonic, dang qui (Angelica sinensis). The four of us did not all agree with this assessment, finding that it was a little too bitter to serve as an alternative to Chinese dang gui. However, it definitely shares dang gui’s blood moving properties. Brian warned against the use of the more common Pacific coast Angelica hendersonii, which is toxic.
Solidago or goldenrod, along with the herb ambrosia (ragweed) are two of the most effective herbal remedies for upper respiratory allergies. Ragweed together with yerba santa as a liquid extract will stop allergy attacks within minutes and is more effective than the popular OTC drug, Claritin. Contrary to popular belief, the pollen of goldenrod does not cause allergies. Brian told the most astounding stories of using goldenrod extract (the aerial portions) to get a number of patients off of dialysis, rescuing them from certain death.
Gooseberry leaves are antiviral.
The bright chartreuse lichen called “wolf lichen” (Letharia vulpina) is a deadly poison and was used by the Achomawi natives as arrow poison. This was presented by Brian at the beginning of our trek as a warning against ingesting wild plants indiscriminately.
Not seen on the trip was a species of the common honey mushroom, Armillaria melea, sold as tian ma mi huan su, found in stretches not in the Sierras but in Marin and other specific coastal areas. Brian said this mushroom is used as a direct and ecologically sounder substitute for the endangered orchid Gastrodia elata, both having powerful antispasmodic properties.
Monardella aerial portions are used for stomach headaches probably caused by digestive problems.
Anemone, mostly the root but the aerial portions as well, is one of the most effective anti-anxiety herbs on the planet. Ben extolled at length on its virtues and one need only take two or three drops of the liquid extract to immediately feel its effects. I was particularly excited by this herb. In TCM it is used for diarrhea and dysentery and is called bai tou weng. Brian and Ben generally regard a fresh preparation of the herb to be more effective than the dried herb of most species. Supposedly dried anemone loses its anxiolytic properties.
Pedicularis or Indian warrior was not abundant where we were, but we found one live plant. This plant is one of the most powerful smooth muscle relaxants known. The average dose is 10 to 15 drops or more but one should adjust dosage according to the degree of muscle relaxation required. It was compared to kava, but unlike kava is cooling rather than heating. Its effects are nearly instant. This herb can be applied to many of the uses of medical marijuana, but without the disorienting mental state. I took about 30 drops and found myself very quiet and laid back with nothing that I wanted to say for the last couple of hours of the final herb walk.
Sitka valerian has similar sedative properties but perhaps less dulling than Valerian officinalis. Brian, who is a wealth of information on the biochemistry and uses of plants, said that the valepotriates in dried valerian are stimulant rather than sedative, which accounts for the paradoxical opposite effect of valerian on some people. I’d never heard this before. He also said that both black haw (Viburnum prunifolium) and Viburnum opulis (snowball plant or cramp bark) contain similar sedative valepotriates as valerian. Brian also described an unusual use for sitka valerian: gout.
These were only some of the highlights from what was one of the most wonderful wilderness herb classes I’ve ever attended.
The East West Herb School is going to feature at our 2013 herbal seminar (as we do each year to critical acclaim) Ben Zappin manifesting his culinary magic always with a hint of wild, medicinal herbs.
I also strongly encourage those of you who are interested to visit Sylvan Botanical Institute’s website. Don't miss the fine classes and especially field trips they offer for herbalists, practitioners and throughout the year to the Mokelumne wilderness that borders the northern, southern and eastern parts of the California Sierra mountains. They also do similar botanical excursions earlier in the year to the dessert region of Southern California and to areas near the Big Sur mountain areas.
Recently I read an article in Acupuncture Today titled “The Devil is in the Details” written by acupuncturist Douglas Briggs, who is frequently called upon to give his opinion on standard care in depositions for malpractice cases. Briggs has experience with the legal demands that determine standard patient care, including proper case documentation.
In a recent case where he was called for his opinion, Briggs listed various questions asked to determine proper patient care, which gave insight into how the legal realm looks at patient records. Apparently during a deposition an attorney can ask anything about your care of a patient, whether you wrote it down or not. What you “think” or “remember” is not credible. If it’s not written down, it’s not part of the record!
While this deals with licensed practitioners, it also applies to all health care providers including those who practice complementary medicine. As these modalities become more mainstream and integrate with conventional ones, our practice methods are also scrutinized and are expected to come into line with highly recognized practices. This will eventually include herbalists as they become more acknowledged. This means herbalists not only need to include proper referrals to other practitioners, but also keep adequate documentation.
Good case notes are obviously helpful for treating your patient. If it’s been weeks, months or even years since you’ve last seen someone, of course you treat what presents in the moment. However, thorough notations provide important reminders of the patient’s history, background, prior assessment and treatment, and other factors that are helpful for choosing your current procedures.
While at the East West School of Planetary Herbology we have long stressed the importance of charting TCM/Ayurvedic/Western assessment, treatment strategy and remedies/protocols, there are several other factors that must be documented. Doing so not only helps your treatment of the patient but also prepares you for unforeseen future needs. When you record such information as patient name, contact information, history, symptom/signs, lifestyle habits, and diet, keep these additions and considerations in mind:
- Not only is good record-keeping legally viewed as providing good care but also NOT providing good documentation could be seen as potentially harming the patient. In other words, good documentation is seen as necessary for the patient’s safety.
- Keep your own notes and don’t depend on other people’s, even if from another respected practitioner.
- Document when you referred someone and to whom, including full names and dates. If you request information from another practitioner, note when and from whom. This protects you, the patient, and the other practitioner.
- Be specific about your recommendations and treatments. If you do any form of bodywork, record what you did, including any points you held or body areas treated with adjunct therapies such as cupping or moxibustion. Do not just state “massage” or “full body care.”
- List your treatments and recommendations in the order performed as this shows a flow of care and not just a list of procedures.
- When you record a follow-up session, your comments about the patient's progress must be specific. Rather than write that a patient is “better” or “worse,” note what specifically has changed since your last session. For example, record how their range of motion is different or what their pain level is now on a scale of one to 10 as opposed to what they reported last time.
- Give a straightforward rationale for your treatment. This is the basis for doing a TCM/Ayurvedic/Western assessment, which also then determines your treatment strategy.
These are the kinds of micro-details that can make a difference. While it may seem nit-picky and time-consuming, it actually takes very little extra effort to comprehensively record what you are doing. In the end, this not only serves you but also gives your patient better care.
The nondescript appearance of herbs in their dried or powdered form, coupled with their high commercial value, has historically made them subject to adulteration, falsification and substitution to increase profits. In fact, adulteration in the herbal industry has been so widespread that at various times regulatory agencies have had to accept a percentage of adulteration of certain herbs as being within legal limits.
All countries since ancient times have indulged in herbal adulteration. Greek, Roman and Muslim traders would engage a special official to oversee herbal quality at the various ports of entry. The most traditional and common test for herbal quality is ‘organoleptic,’ meaning to verify an herb based on appearance, smell and taste. Today, scientific testing is employed. Questions of purity, however, still remain relative. This could be relative to how much of a non-useful part such as stem fragments as well as other extraneous material including foreign plant fragments and soil are allowed and still meet the market standard. (For a more thorough exposition on the topic of herbal adulteration, read “A Brief History of Adulteration of Herbs, Spices and Botanical Drugs” by Steven Foster published in HerbalGram, 2011.)
Obviously, the best of all possible worlds would have unadulterated herbs and honest and accurate labeling. Failing that, anyone manufacturing herbal products or engaged with their pharmaceutical or clinical use must implement their own method of determining the quality of an herb or herb product. This can involve employing expensive laboratory equipment or contracting other personal supportive sources and references.
Adulteration of Herbal Products in China
China, heir to the world’s richest body of herbal wisdom, is the largest user and proponent of herbal medicine globally (if for no other reason than worldwide scope and population). For this reason, China would more likely be vulnerable to issues of adulteration than any other country.
Chinese herbal medicine is so powerful because the knowledge of herbs, their use and cultivation has been continuously distilled over the course of millennia, and continues to be actively developed today. East Indian Ayurveda’s tradition is also very long-lived, but there seems to be greater consistency and organization of information about herbs and their application in Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM).
This distinction is no secret. On a visit to Thailand, I asked someone on the street about traditional Thai medicine and they candidly recommended me to a local Traditional Chinese Medical doctor, saying that Chinese herbal medicine is the most effective. Further, they pointed out how throughout Africa, Chinese herbal doctors were similarly regarded with the highest esteem.
But every so often, some hack media reporter, a well-meaning but uninformed medical doctor, or even an herbalist publishes reasons why the public should avoid and even completely boycott all Chinese herbal products. One of my students directed me to “The Truth about Chinese Herbal Medicine” where respected herbalist Dr. Richard Schulze lists the most shocking examples of Chinese adulteration and misdeeds as reason to boycott the use of any type of Chinese herbal product. I do not challenge the undocumented claims in his blog, many if not all of which may be true, but I do say it is gravely misleading to the extent that it may dissuade individuals from seeking the benefits that only traditional Chinese herbal medicine can achieve for their health issues.
It’s nowhere near as shocking as the examples given in Schulze’s blog, but even the herb he (as a former fellow student of Dr. Christopher) holds as sovereign among all, cayenne pepper (Capsicum frutescens) in the form of African bird pepper, has been known in the past to have been adulterated with red lead or salt to help it retain its red color, or in more recent times, sawdust.
I highly recommend that you read an article by herbalist Eric Brand entitled “Organic Herbs in China” for a more balanced view regarding the harvesting, growing and evolution of good manufacturing practices (GMP) and the organic movement in China. Millions of Chinese both in China and throughout the world rely on herbs harvested and cultivated in China for their health needs, so these must meet a minimum Good Agricultural Practices (GAP) standard based on thousands of years of information about the cultivation and harvesting of Chinese herbs. While the organic movement in 2010 at the time of Brand’s writing was in its infancy, it can only be assumed given the tremendous amount of attention focused on the quality of Chinese herbs and products over recent years, the movement has substantially grown.
Reputable Sources for Unadulterated Chinese Herbs
The following is not intended as a complete list of sources of quality Chinese herbs and products but offers a starting point.
As chief formulator and developer of the line, knowing that they are one of the few companies who have taken it upon themselves to conform to the most stringent guidelines based on California’s draconian Proposition 65 (Clean Air and Clean Water Bill of 1986), I can personally vouch for the safety and quality of the Chinese herbs used in Planetary Herbals http://www.planetaryherbals.com/
Internationally based Mayway Herb Company has become one of the most popular and largest importers and manufacturers of Chinese herbs and herb products. With the creation of their Plum Flower line of traditional Chinese Herbal formulas, they are making it possible for increasing numbers of the public and herbal practitioners from a wide cultural base to learn the application and benefits of Chinese herbal medicine. The fact of the existence of this line of products manufactured under strict GMP standards makes it possible for me and others to teach Chinese herbal medicine to non-Chinese herbalists and have the formulas available. I also increasingly see natural food stores carrying a selection of Plum Flower products.
In addition, I have no hesitation to recommend or use herbs from the following companies.
Asia Naturals http://www.drkangformulas.com/orderlist/contact/contact.htm
Bio Essence http://bioessence.com/
Blue Poppy http://bluepoppy.com/cfwebstore/
Chinese Medicinal Herb Farm http://www.chinesemedicinalherbfarm.com/
Evergreen Herbs https://www.evherbs.com/evshop/
Golden Flower Chinese Herbs http://www.gfcherbs.com/about/manufacturing.php
Herbalists and Alchemist http://www.herbalist-alchemist.com/
Herbs Etc. http://www.herbsetc.com/
Herb Pharm http://www.herb-pharm.com/
Kan Herbs http://www.kanherb.com/
Mountain Rose Herbs http://www.mountainroseherbs.com/
Nu Herbs http://www.nuherbs.com/
Spring Wind Herbs https://springwind.com/
Directly from China: Lanzhou Foci Pharmaceutical Co. Ltd. and the Guangzhou Qixing Pharmaceutical Co. Ltd. are companies ranked among the top 1% of medicine manufacturers in all of China.
Don’t cut off your nose to spite your face
Rather than boycotting Chinese herbs, use products from the above-mentioned list of reputable companies and continue to seek out higher quality organic herbal products. Because of the market, these are becoming easier and easier to find. The Chinese herbal tradition is too vastly useful to boycott, and the companies and farmers who are working hard to preserve the quality and purity of Chinese herbs deserve our support.